Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Stori: things I learned yesterday, bread has feelings too

I come from a long line of cooks and bakers. My Dad would never accept it if someone told him they could not cook. His philosophy was if you can read, you can cook. So since Dad was one of the major people that taught me how to cook, but mostly how to bake, I was never afraid of trying out a new recipe. If I could read it, I could do it. That ideal is basically true except for a few foods that reading has nothing to do with.

Yesterday I got to learn the lesson that you cannot teach someone how to bake a beautiful loaf of bread over the phone.

There is so much more to the art of baking than reading a recipe and following a set grid of guidelines. How much flour do you use? Depends. How humid is it in your house? Is it a rainy day? Do you have a wood stove burning? How hot does the water need to be? Oh, about that hot, maybe finger tingle. What the heck is finger tingle? It's when the water is hot enough that when you stick your finger in it, it makes your skin tingle. Is that an exact temperature? Not really, how cold is your finger to start with?

My Dad taught me how to make my first loaf of bread about 11 years ago. He handed me the recipe, did it once and let me watch, then let me loose. He was there if I had questions, but his answer was usually, "just see what it feels like". "Dad, is this enough flour?" his answer would be, " I don't know, what does it feel like?". I don't know how to teach people how to get the feel for baking. So since my first batch, I have made around 6 loaves about every week or so for the last decade. I have had beautiful bread, I have had the ugliest dough hunks you could imagine. I have played with water temperatures and oven temperatures. I have tried storing my bulk yeast in different ways. I have discovered that yes, different types of flours do matter! I have played with the olive vs. vegetable vs. butter argument. I have battled the using water over milk theory. Sugar over honey. My voyage into the world of traditional hand made bread has evolved to the point that I am now inventing my own recipes. Since white bread destroys my Mom's blood sugar, I needed to come up with a bread that she could eat without sending her into the shakes. Debi has mentioned that recipe before, we call it Mimi bread since that is what the grand kids call my Mom.

Over several years, I have developed the FEEL for bread and any baked goods I have tackled. My friend calls me yesterday with a cooking question. It surprises me every time someone calls for my cooking/baking advice. I'm honored that they may value my opinion, but still surprises every time. So she asks me if it would be ok if she used the lactose free milk in a bread recipe. Her youngest daughter is just about the same age as my Sunni Sue and her baby is lactose intolerant. I tell her I have no idea. We have a milk cow, why would I know how to cook with fake milk? I told her that I use water in my bread, not milk. I had mentioned to her in the past that I do all the family's baking every week, but I don't think she quite believed me till she came by last week to buy some eggs just as I was pulling the last 3 loaves from the oven. She still questioned me then. Asked if those started out as the frozen dough balls you can buy at the store, since they were too pretty to be home made. I tried really hard not to be insulted by this. So me telling her water over milk started the next 5 hours of phone call after phone call. I gave her the recipe and a short list of how to's and do's and don't's and thought that was it. I had forgotten how intimidating a loaf of bread could be when you don't have the feel yet. I walked her through each step, trying to describe the texture of the dough when you have enough flour added, to how foamy the yeast needed to be before adding the flour. We measured bread pans, and discussed oven temperature differences when using glass or metal pans. The final call was what level should her oven racks be? I haven't heard from her yet this morning, I'll probably end up calling to see how it turned out. It would not surprise me that if like my first batch, her's was total crap too. Next time I think it would be simple and fun to tell someone how to make my bread, I hope I remember to invite them to my house first, so they can see feel first hand what it's supposed to feel like. So for those of you with the touch and the grit to bake, here is my bread recipe. I'm going to keep it simple, because if you know how to do it, you will know how to do it, and for those who don't, please feel free to drop by the place here. I'll make us a cuppa coffee and we can talk about our feelings.

Country white bread
(also great for rolls, cinnamon/sticky buns, and bread bowls!)
makes 6 loaves

4 cups hot water
1/3 cup olive oil
1 cup sugar
4 tsp salt
2 eggs
4 TBLS yeast
10 to 14 cups bread flour (depends on how much is needed!)

In large bowl, combine first 4 ingredients. Whisk in eggs till foamy. Need water temp to be about 110* or finger tingle, add in yeast. Blend very gently and let dissolve and rest for about 5 minutes. Start stirring in flour. When dough is too hard to stir, dump out on to floured service and start kneading. Keep adding small amounts of flour as needed while kneading. When nice bouncy skin has developed, put back into lightly oiled big bowl. Cover and let rise in a warm, and preferably moist, place till doubled. About an hour. Once doubled dump dough back out and divide into loaf sized chunks, about 1 1/2 lbs each. Shape into loaves working out all the air bubbles and place in lightly oiled loaf pans. Let rise again till doubled. Bake in preheated 380* oven, middle-ish rack, for about 24 minutes. Till tops are golden, pretty, and sounds hollow when thumped. Remove from pans and place on racks to cool. While still warm, brush with melted butter or margarine.

That's about as simple as I can make it, but don't give up if it doesn't work right. It takes time to learn how to be a good baker.

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